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[Computerbank] OT Wireless rural networks in Laos


I'm forwarding this as I thought it might be of interest to some here. If this is not appropriate material for the CB list, please let me know off list.




Pedaling onto the Information Superhighway
Laos villagers to get online with bike-powered PCs

Tuesday, February 18, 2003 Posted: 10:21 AM EST (1521 GMT)
Tavee Pularmjit pedals a bike-powered generator intended to run a
custom-built computer.

BAN PHON KHAM, Laos (AP) -- Villagers in this remote jungle hamlet have
lived for years without electricity or telephones, relying on occasional
visitors and a sluggish postal system for news of the outside world.

But soon many of its residents will be jumping on stationary bikes to pedal
their way onto the Information Superhighway.

Custom-built computers -- running on bicycle-powered generators -- will
transport villagers from rice fields to chat rooms and Web sites worldwide.
They'll be able to monitor rice and vegetable prices, sell handicrafts and
e-mail relatives.

The project, expected to launch as early as this spring, gets around the
lack of phone lines through a clever application of the increasingly popular
WiFi technology, which is used to wirelessly connect laptops, handhelds and
other devices elsewhere.

For the first time, villagers will also be able to make phone calls, using
Internet-based voice technologies. And because much of the project is built
around nonproprietary, or "open source," software, villagers will
essentially own the system.

The project is the brainchild of the Jhai Foundation, a San Francisco aid
organization started by Vietnam War veteran Lee Thorn.

While Thorn wants to build the local economy and help poor villagers enter
the digital age, he also hopes to heal the wounds of a war he helped wage as
a bomb loader for Navy warplanes that flew missions over Laos, where the
United States was fighting communist insurgents and their North Vietnamese

The ingenious system -- not much different from a school science project --
comprises five computers built with discarded microchips.

They connect to the Internet with a radio network and are powered by hulking
batteries attached to stationary bicycles imported from India. One minute of
pedaling yields five minutes of power.
'Low-tech solutions'
Lee Thorn, right, founder of the Jhai Foundation, oversees a demonstration
by Laotian schoolgirls of the bike-powered computer.
Lee Thorn, right, founder of the Jhai Foundation, oversees a demonstration
by Laotian schoolgirls of the bike-powered computer.

"In a country where the population is isolated ... it becomes necessary to
think about decidedly low-tech solutions," said Andy Carvin of the Benton
Foundation, a nonprofit organization that studies global Internet access.

Elsewhere, Carvin said, communities have turned to hand cranks and even cow
manure where electricity is unavailable. He said the Lao project represents
the latest of the "homegrown solutions."

The first of the computers is being set up in a freshly painted classroom of
the local schoolhouse, a single-story concrete building in a clearing in the
center of the village. The others will go to neighboring villages.

All five will use WiFi to send data wirelessly to a central radio
transmitter and antenna dish at the school. From there, microwave signals
will be zapped to a treetop antenna on a nearby mountain ridge and routed to
a dial-up Internet account at a nearby hospital, which has two of the
region's few phone lines.

Though the bikes will power much of the system, the relay stations will have
solar panels. WiFi offers pretty decent speeds, and the hospital's dial-up
connection will likely be the primary bottleneck.

"We're trying to make this as simple as possible so it can be replicated
anywhere in the world," Thorn said, after firing off e-mail to the United
States from his laptop perched on a 50-gallon oil drum.

But Carvin said access is only the start.

"Time will tell how successful this is going to be," he said. "Do they have
the training program set up and enough content available in Lao as well as
some of the tribal languages of the indigenous population?"

Organizers say some of that is being addressed.

Although English Web sites will remain in English, villagers will be able to
send and receive messages in their native language. Software will also
feature menus translated into Lao.

Students in Phon Kham will be trained to use the system and teach older

The network, designed and built for about $19,000 plus donated labor, will
cost about $21 a month to operate, Thorn said.

Central to the network is the Jhai PC, a plastic-encased computer smaller
than a laptop and built to withstand the punishing heat and monsoon rains of
the Lao countryside. The units were built by Lee Felsenstein, inventor of
the world's first portable computer.

Because the equipment was customized, last-minute technical glitches forced
a delay in the project's launch, originally scheduled for this week.

Settled in 1975 by refugees who fled U.S. bombing over Laos during the
Vietnam War, Phon Kham has been a quiet haven for the likes of Pahn
Vongsengthong, a 78-year-old retired rice farmer.

Like many other villagers, Pahn has family scattered around the globe.

"The first thing is that I miss my daughters," said Pahn, who lives in a
simple thatch-roof farmhouse and has never used a computer. "Whenever I miss
them, I will be able to walk down the road and talk to them" through a

Tavee Pulaimchit, 60, the village's chief, said the high-tech outpost will
help residents compete for lucrative contracts from businesses elsewhere in
Laos, one of the world's poorest countries.

"This village is isolated from the bigger towns and cities," he said, "and
we need to keep in contact with the markets there."

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